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Owning Your Negative Traits

10/30/2010 04:38 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is wrong with corporate culture today? There's a lot of niceness and fakeness going on, and people are scared to death to say anything. If you walk into any company and look around, everyone wants to focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses, and this can be very limiting for a team and a company as a whole. I have never been to an office small or large where the culture in the office isn't deeply affected by personalities.

One of the first things we do at the Handel Group when we begin coaching an executive is to help dismantle this aspect of corporate culture and work on discovering what the individual's negative traits are. We look at personality, habits, and behaviors and determine what doesn't work in the corporate environment and diminishes his or her ability to lead and get the best out of employees. (These same traits are very often similar to what doesn't work in their personal lives, but here we will stick to business -- mostly.)

A few examples of negative traits may be micromanaging employees who don't need it; not trusting people; being harsh, impatient, not taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate people; being late to meetings.

When working with a company, I love to get the most senior person to own their own crap first -- it can shift the entire energy in the office and produce positive results both in company morale and in profitability. We continually see when a boss acknowledges that it's OK to have bad traits and tell the truth about them, it profoundly alters the culture in the company for the better.

How to Acknowledge Negative Traits to Be a Better Leader

Before you start getting frustrated or feeling bad about yourself, remember that everyone has negative traits, even the most successful people. But you can't fix what you don't know -- or acknowledge -- to be a problem. You'll see many benefits, both personal and professional, to doing this kind of work.

Five Steps to Owning Your Bad Traits and Taking Them Down

1) Find Out Your Negative Traits

Reach out to people you both trust and feel comfortable with, and explain to them that you genuinely want to hear about your less-than-positive traits because you are sincere about changing your behavior. These could be siblings, friends, colleagues, even your kids -- anyone who you know will tell you the truth.

Another way to do this is to make a list of situations that didn't work out the way you wanted or that made you unhappy, and figure out your role in it. Did your lack of trust sour a work relationship? Have you had to apologize to employees because of your bad temper?

The third way -- and something we do with clients -- is to ask you to list all your parents' traits, positive and negative. Before you roll your eyes and decide that this isn't for you, let me make it clear that we aren't getting into therapy here (though it may end up being a therapeutic process), but we believe that understanding all the people in your life, all your life's big events, directly opens a window to understanding the themes in your life.

Your personality is made up of everything you ever experienced -- everything you ever heard, witnessed, learned, mimicked, etc. To understand your personality, you have to know what you are reacting to, believing in, and reliving. The mission is to uncover unresolved themes -- and resolve them. Here's how it might work: You look back and realize that your mother was a control freak, and how that plays out for you at work is that you micromanage people. Maybe your father withheld praise, and you never think to congratulate employees on small victories.

2) Write Up Your Version of the Trait

Once you've identified all your bad traits, choose one and write up your version of it. Don't be easy on yourself. Tell the truth, and be blunt. How does it look to others when you're doing it? Own the trait. It's how you will ultimately take it down and change.

3) How Does the Trait Affect You and the People Around You?

Look at how the trait affects you and the people in your life -- watch and see how it affects others. How do you feel after doing it? Are you left feeling proud of yourself? Does it upset your spouse or your children? It's important to understand the impact that the bad trait has on you and your life.

4) Watch the Trait and Keep a Log of It

Spend a week and keep a log on your phone of whenever you do the trait. How did you do it? Document every place you see it. Don't try and change it, just become present to it.

5) Get the Trait on a Leash

A bad trait doesn't disappear right away -- it's a bad habit. It's probably been in your lineage for generations. You need to get it "on a leash" to evolve it and change it forever. Changing a bad trait is easiest when you use a system of consequences.

System of Consequences

There are a few methods we use at the Handel Group, and one of the simplest but most effective is the use of promises and consequences. This starts the process of making you aware of your trait. Having the people in your life participate helps you identify and modify the behavior that's not working, and also lets the people who are most affected know you are sincere about changing and are inviting their help.

For instance, my big thing was that I could get really mean with people -- I could be sarcastic and say really debilitating things to them. I was committed to changing that trait. I promised that if I was mean to anyone, I had 15 minutes to realize it and then go back to the person and apologize. If I didn't catch myself or if someone else caught me, and if it took me longer than 15 minutes to figure it out or if I didn't want to apologize, I paid the consequence, which was throwing $10 on the street. (Yes, I literally threw money on the street. It made me nuts to do that, but the whole point of the consequence is that it has to be incredibly annoying. Giving money to a good cause isn't annoying!) After two months of catching myself and apologizing, and $100 to the street in increments of 10, I started to notice that I didn't get mean anymore. I started to let people know in a respectful way that something they did just didn't work for me, and we resolved it.

At first, most people don't want to acknowledge their negative traits, but by the time the process of discovery and change is complete, an amazing feeling of freedom enters the workplace. The entire environment shifts, allowing for creativity, productivity, and effective teamwork. So I dare you, tell on yourself to your team. Tell them that you know you can be harsh, or that you are late to meetings, that you can get impatient and bite people's heads off, or whatever your trait is -- then tell them that you are taking on the task of ending these traits. You can even ask your team whether there are any other traits that they would like you to take on this year. Then set up your consequences, let them in on the game, and have fun with it. You'll be amazed at what happens.

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